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Behavior, Psychology and Sociology

Does weight stigma reduce working memory? Evidence of stereotype threat susceptibility in adults with obesity

International Journal of Obesityvolume 42pages15001507 (2018) | Download Citation



Obesity is a highly stigmatizing condition, and reduced cognitive functioning is a stereotypical trait ascribed to individuals with obesity. In the present work, we tested the hypothesis that stereotype threat (i.e., a depletion of working memory resources due to the fear of confirming a negative self-relevant stereotype when a stereotype-related ability is assessed) contributes to cognitive deficits in individuals with obesity.


Computerized tests of (a) working memory and (b) probabilistic learning—an ability unrelated with working memory—were administered to a community sample of 131 adults. Stereotype threat was manipulated by altering the alleged nature of the tasks; the tasks were alternatively labeled as intelligence tests (high stereotype threat condition), memory and learning tests (standard instructions condition), or distraction games (low stereotype threat condition).


A negative relation between body mass index (BMI) and working memory emerged in both the high stereotype threat (95% CIs = −0.872, −0.175, p = 0.003) and the standard instructions conditions (95% CIs = −0.974, −0.153, p = 0.007), but not in the low stereotype threat condition (95% CIs = −0.266, 0.430, p = 0.643). No effect emerged on probabilistic learning.


Stereotype threat is associated with impaired working memory of individuals with obesity. Implications for researchers and clinicians are discussed.

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    To explore in detail whether the relation between MBI and working memory varied between the HST and the S condition (contrast 3), we repeated the same analysis by maintaining the S condition as the reference group. Results confirmed that the BMI by contrast three interactions was not significant, B = −0.040, SE = 0.272, p = 0.882, 95% CIs = −0.578, 0.498, thus meaning that the relation between BMI and working memory does not differ when the task is presented as a cognitive test, regardless of its alternative labeling either an “intelligence” (HST) or a mere “working memory” (S) test.


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We gratefully acknowledge Angelo Schettino, the Casa di Cura Privata San Lorenzino (Cesena, Italy), and non-profit organizations who agreed to advertise this study for their helpful support. They are also grateful to Rebecca Bigler for providing insightful comments on earlier versions of this work.

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  1. Department of Psychology, University of Bologna, 90, Piazza Aldo Moro, 47521, Cesena, Italy

    • Veronica Guardabassi
    •  & Carlo Tomasetto


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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Veronica Guardabassi.

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